Friday, 31 August 2012

Letter to GCSE students

Dear school students,

Those of you who have sat GCSEs this year are victims of a fraud. You will have been told many times by your teachers that it was vital for you to do as well as you could in the GCSEs because employers, sixth form admissions and anyone outside of school will look at your grades and judge you by them. It probably seemed throughout this last year or two that everyone around you was anxious about the amount of work you were or were not doing. I can remember when I sat the exams which came before GCSEs (called O-levels) that the nearer we got to the exams in June, the more worried everyone seemed to get.

No matter the worry, there was always the idea that the people who set and marked the exam were 'fair'. Everyone told us - perhaps they told you - that it was the fairest way to judge if  you had done the work. Well, I'm someone who thinks that there are better ways of finding out whether people know stuff or not, but let's leave that to one side for the moment. I'm also someone who thinks that at the end of the day, the main thing that exams test is  our ability to do exams. But hey, we do them, we have to do them, so we do them and we take at face value that they'll be fair.

And then this year, they have been exposed as not fair. We now know that the people in charge of making sure that they should be fair, have in fact fiddled the system. It's as if it was a game of football and at half time, when the two teams change ends, someone's come along, and moved the goal posts AND made them narrower to it's harder for one team to score. And it's the ref who has done this! The very person we trust to be fair and objective.

Thousands of teachers and headteachers are outraged by what's happened. The people in charge of the exams, Ofqual, have offered you the chance to do resits but this is really yet another way to move the goalposts to cover up their mistake. Mysteriously, the person who is really in charge, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education is absent today. Some of us think he's hiding. He's scared of your anger, the teachers' anger and your parents' anger as well.

I, for one, am hoping that this rage will turn into an action that will make it impossible for the situation you find yourselves in to continue. The exams you sat must be regraded. The mess is of their making, not yours. You shouldn't have to pay for it.

For the time being, there is one crumb of comfort I draw from all this. That is: these people who have power, these people who sit over us and try to rule our lives, present themselves as wise, caring people. Newspapers, TV and radio people point microphones at them and give them the space and time to show themselves as thoughtful leaders who know what they're doing. But you have seen and heard and felt that the people in charge of your work and your lives are incompetent and two-faced. They have deceived you,  your parents and your teachers. And now they say they are not to blame. Or worse, they've come up with some pathetic alibi about the marks being too high last time. If it's true, all it means is that they're doubly useless: useless then, useless now.

There is only one course of action they should be taking: that is to regrade you and resign.

I think that would be a very reasonable thing to demand.

Regrade and resign.

Very best wishes
Michael Rosen.

GCSEs, exams, competition - the system

As we sit waiting for the first comments from Ofgove...sorry, Ofqual...the exam watchdog (ahem) then in line with all good fantasy fiction, we are about to go through the portal into the strange world of Exam Regulation.

As a child, I had glimpses of this as my father would come home in a state of some frustration, bemusement and anger from meetings with examiners. I think he did this first as a senior teacher and then for a while he became poacher turned gamekeeper and helped devise the CSE exam and/or the modular, course work element of the English exam that preceded the CSE.

This particular episode in the history of exams should make us think long and hard about their purpose and worth. The argument in favour of end-of-course national exams is that they set a national standard for all - teachers, pupils and parents - to aspire to. The government publishes objectives and outlines of syllabuses, exam boards interpret these in terms of questions and teachers teach their pupils as best they can to perform the kinds of tasks the exam asks for. This set-up is so ingrained in all of us that it's hard to get behind it or beyond it to see if it's fair or right or necessary. Here are my thoughts:

1. When people have talked about education in the past, they have tended towards grand generalisations about the flowering of the individual, developing potential, enabling everyone to learn how to learn. I go in for these sometimes, so I'm not having a dig here.

2. An alternative tack is to stress different aspects of the education process: a) passing on of knowledge b) passing on of skills d) passing on of national culture e) passing on of civic duties f) passing on of values and morals.  Teachers should be forgiven for wondering sometimes quite how they are supposed to be teaching a  body of knowledge, a set of skills, a general sense of 'the nation', a commitment to democracy, a commitment to the modern equivalent of the Ten Commandments - all at the same time. And, needless to say, much of this can be contested anyway - but I'll leave that to one side for the moment.

3. Invisibly, schools do another kind of passing on: they teach young people something fundamental about their position in hierarchy. Now, I know that this sort of thing infuriates many people but I'll press on. Schools are hierarchical places (of course) and this hierarchy is determined by government and law. It reaches down from the Department for Education to the least important beings in the school, whether that be the part-time school-workers or the youngest pupils. The first educative aspect of this is that it teaches all who are part of the hierarchy that the hierarchy itself is 'natural' and 'normal'. It's the way we human beings are, it's the best and only way for us to organise ourselves. (It isn't, but that's what's taught by us 'enacting' and living in and with the hierarchy.)  The second educative aspect of this is that the hierarchy is enforced through systems of discipline, positive and negative 'reinforcement'. For teachers and school-workers it comes in the ever increasingly elaborate systems of contracts, terms of employment, discipline procedures and ever-changing qualification requirements - which of course vary across the kinds of schools! For pupils, the hierarchy is held in place through the elaborate systems of streaming, setting, detentions, exclusions, rewards, lack of rewards and so on. It is essential to remember that this is as much part of our 'knowledge-base' as, say Henry VIII or 'coastal erosion'. We learn to believe that we are better and worse than others and that this is some kind of fundamental truth about ourselves. Teachers, more often than not, are helpless referees in a system which constantly sets pupil against pupil in terms of how they are behaving, how they are sitting (yes, happens every day in most primary schools!), how they are reading, writing, talking, eating.

There is a fundamental belief here: that we all perform better if we compete against each other. Following the great compete-fest of the Olympics, we've been inundated with cod philosophy from commentators, politicians and sportspeople telling us that competition is life, life is competition, winning and losing is what it's all about etc etc etc.

Well, it's really much simpler than that. Even under the conditions of an economic system where owners compete against each other and have the power to make us compete for jobs, much of life is also about how we co-operate. Wearing different hats, at different times, these commentators and politicians plead with us to  show compassion and work with others - whether that's through charities (think the Beeb's annual charity fests), or through the glorification of people who work to help others, intervene to stop people being robbed or attacked and so on. And of course, every day of our lives, we all co-operate with each other when we go shopping for the family, do the washing, drive down the road on the right side and so on.

However, the ethos of education has become more and more to do with competition - most recently deified by Boris Johnson and David Cameron fondly remembering the casual brutality of public school sport and then demanding that we all do this for two hours a week instead of doing 'Indian dancing or whatever' (one of the most offensive throwaways by any UK Prime Minister, surely!).

My point here is that competition is taught. It's education. It's a body of knowledge.

However, it's not neutral knowledge. It's a knowledge that teaches most people that they are not good enough. They are not movers or shakers. They are not capable enough. They are people with limits.

Now, no teacher in the modern era encourages this way of thinking. They did in my day. We were told quite specifically what our limits were, so that the systems of competition fitted what teachers were saying about us. Nowadays, teachers mostly support those general ideas about potential, and every individual getting the most, believing in yourself, learning to learn and all that. It's just that nowadays, this runs counter to the drip-drip-drip of this daily diet of positioning you in the hierarchies of good-bad behaviour, good-bad learner, good-bad performer, good-bad person etc.

4. Exams and tests are a kind of scaffold that supports and maintains this whole competitive system. They hold it all together and teachers with the best of intentions constantly remind pupils that if they behave in this or that way, it will either enable or hinder them in their ultimate goal - to get a good mark in that exam.

Every year at this time of year, the exam mark is held up as the prime purpose, the ultimate objective of education. It is seen as the symptom that the core stuff of education has happened. It is, the theory goes, the best measure that education has happened to that individual. Exams are the mileage counter of the individual - an objective measure of distance covered.

However, the problem here, as any teacher knows, is that knowledge and/or skills are one thing, and passing exams is another. In other words, there is a secondary knowledge ie 'how to pass exams'. It is not sufficient to know how to do something, it's not sufficient to know something. You also have to know how to show that or tell that in this highly particular cultural thing - the exam.

And so the culture of teaching to the test, learning how to do exams takes off.

5. Weirdly and amazingly, Ofsted (of all people) bewailed in the recent report on English that too many school teach to the test. What?! Of course they do, because Ofsted and everyone ever involved in education has come to think that teaching pupils how to do exams improves the performance of those who would otherwise be baffled and disturbed by what exams ask you to do and indeed baffled by how exams ask you to do things. In narrow terms, teaching to the test works.

6. This then asks the key question, what kind of knowledge is it? What does teaching to the test, teach? What is the content of 'teaching to the test'?

This demands of us to make distinctions between different kinds of tests, and different kinds of marking systems, bringing us up to date with the disaster of this week's GCSEs.

Every test or exam, has lying behind it a theory of what it is testing, and behind every marking system there is a theory about what is fair or right or politically necessary.  So, there are people who believe that the test they are setting (eg for job interviews) is an 'aptitude test' ie it is testing some objective core of your brain which reveals whether you are 'apt'. In fact, it is testing some specific abilities to perform highly specific tasks (mostly loaded towards mathematical relationships expressed verbally in very formulaic ways) which can in fact be learned as a specific body of knowledge. They aren't really about aptitude at all. If you've had a very good maths teachers and have spent a lot of time doing those Puzzle books while you're on holiday, you will sail through most questions on an 'aptitude' test.

Another kind of test, will claim that it is objective about a body of knowledge eg by asking multiple choice questions about that body of knowledge eg ';The Tudors' or whatever. However, at the  heart of this is a problem of the so-called 'plausibility of the distractor'. That's to say, if you display wrong alternatives to a right answer, some are more plausible than others and on occasion some might, under specific conditions be equally right. The degree of plausibility of the distracting answers varies according to the individual's cultural and/or social background.

What's more at the heart of multiple choice tests there is a question of technique. Teachers will teach the exam-taking knowledge to a) bomb on through the test, don't linger. b) if you don't know the answer, guess - you'll have a one in four chance of being right. This last point will almost certainly win you extra marks over the person who is not doing that and has absolutely nothing to do with the syllabus knowledge and everything to do with exam-technique knowledge.

Another kind of tests will claim to be able to test eg 'retrieval' or 'inference' by putting passages of writing in front of candidates and ply them with questions about what they have just read. A key issue here is that the very system of asking the questions fits certain particular formulae. Quite independently of whether a pupil can retrieve, infer and understand a passage of writing, their retrieval, inference and understanding has to be expressed in the ways determined by the questioning and answering structure. In other words, there is another framework of knowledge to be learned beyond that of actually understanding the passage of writing.

A good deal of teaching to the test is in fact about that very matter.

A book can be written about all this.

7. Now to the matter of the theory behind the marking. It suits governments and exam boards to be as mysterious as possible about this. At the heart of the matter is a key question: is the exam-marking pre-fixed to have an outcome that will produce a fixed distribution of the grades across the cohort of candidates? Traditionally this is the so-called 'bell-curve' graph of grade distributions?

Or will the test test teaching and learning by measuring the percentage of those pupils who have performed the tasks in question as set at the beginning of the syllabus?

Or, (the most likely), is it a bit of both? ie Does the test claim at the outset that it is doing the latter, testing performance at the task set, but as teachers and pupils get more and more used to the system, learn the knack of what to do to get through, political imperatives driven by ministers and upper class hooligans like Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, demand that not so many pupils do really pass ie the test is tweaked so that it fits some kind of politically expedient 'curve' on the graph?

This is what is at issue this week with the GCSEs and it is why thousands of pupils have been cheated (as I write this). That's to say, at the end of 11 years of this competitive rat  race, where they have done all that is asked of them, teachers have jumped through all the hoops that governments have asked them to do, and at the very last, it's been thought politically necessary to junk them.

It's an outrage.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

I catch up with Batman: and Osama bin Lenin.

I'm a bit slow to reach the Batman franchise, but I sat through what felt like about six hours of the thing today: that Dark Knight thingy. (Don't ask me to justify it, it's a parent thing.)

Two main thoughts: the persistence of the dark,wealthy/aristocratic stranger figure as a staple in Gothic literature, along with his crumbling hall and (at the end) graveyard accoutrements; the ever-shifting hybrid enemy of civilisation.

On this latter point, the enemy in sensational, excessive literature of the late 19th, early 20th century was often a transformed representation of the very people that the 'civilised' world was enslaving, imprisoning, cheating and exploiting: Africans, Indians and Chinese. Boys comics were overflowing with invading Africans, drug-dealing Chinese and cretinized Indian servants. In the 1950s, the enemy had become the totalitarian Soviets or clones thereof, or Nazi-Communist mongrels.

So, 2012, we have what is a kind of Osama Bin Lenin figure who talks a bit like the nutters who kidnapped Patsy Hearst. The imagery of long-brewed revenge out there somewhere where it's hot and desert-like is redolent of the non-existent presence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and of course there isn't room in the film to explain that Bin Laden's brewing was yeasted up by the longterm presence of Western oil interests in the deserts and not so deserted spots of the Middle East. However, when the film's Bin Laden figure gets to Gotham he morphs into a populist.

Batman is of course the saviour, mixing hi-tech obliteration techniques appropriate to the era of the Stealth bomber and prolonged fisticuffs borrowed from the cowboy era of film-making.

There's a good deal of muttering and guttural grunting from the men and the women mostly avoided pouting as the post-feminist norm for women in this kind of movie is to be dangerous: kicking and killing.

Even though it looked as if Batman was blown up by his own heroics with a neutron bomb, we note at the end that he has survived along with one of the dangerous women.

There is a theory that all US movies are Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. This one's Catholic. A priest walks about with some boys, agrees to bus them to almost certain death, but (of course) they survive. And I suppose Batman is Jesus. He dies but comes back to life. Though that analogy may fall down as Jesus didn't get the girl with lipstick and tight trousers.

I told you I'm late to the franchise.

I'm a politician...

I'm a politician and I'm trying very hard indeed to convince you that when we talk about 'deficit' or 'debt' or both, I want you to think that it's your deficit and your debt. I want you to be worried and concerned about this deficit and debt of yours and not think it's the deficit and debt caused by bankers flogging money to each other. I don't want you to think about that top 1 per cent owning wealth beyond that ever dreamed of by the pharaohs, emperors and kings of the past. I want you to think that these hyperwealthy people are busy, clever people doing the best they can to keep the wheels of the world economy turning. I don't want you to ever think that poverty, starvation and war are caused by powerful people trying to secure their wealth and privilege or trying to grab even more. I want you to feel that I'm on your side doing the best I can for you even as I am making it harder for you to get health care, education and help for you or any of your relatives or people you care about who are unable to work. I don't want you to blame me for anything at all. I want you to think I'm nice.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Tower of London:the Bloody Tower still bloody after all these years

Had an interesting day at the Tower of London today. As I wandered about in the usual summer dreamlike state with young children in tow, I find that I don't gather my thoughts immediately. Toilets and ice-creams come first and a raven eating a big chunk of chicken breast rates as a highlight. Because it's a place I must have been to between ten and twenty times since I was about five, there's also a way in which the experience is also a nostalgia trip where past and present merge. Was Walter Raleigh locked up in there? I asked. No, no, says the Beefeater, over there with the rest of them. I let myself suggest that he didn't really do anything wrong and the Beefeater dives in to tell us that Walter Raleigh was a fool who was tried and found guilty in a court of law. Three times. So that deals with that one. But where, I wondered was the execution block that used to fascinate me and my friends when we came here as children? That's on the second floor inside the White Tower.

My children don't seem as desperately keen to stare at the Crown Jewels as we fifties children were but we shlepped through the darkened rooms to stare at chunks of gold pressed into plates and maces by the score and of course the crowns encrusted with rocks hewn out of African mines in conditions I don't dare imagine. A film of the coronation seems to excite the non-Brits walking through. Again, my own children were excited by the moving pavement that whisked us past some of the big'uns.

We went into the torture room, which is about a billion times more moderate in tone than the publicity of the London Dungeon (somewhere I haven't been to yet). We contemplate the idea of being stretched, squashed, and hung upside down. I start muttering about the fact that it's still going on but by the time I get to waterboarding, they were off wanting to get to the shop.

Ah the shop.

Perhaps it's the shops at Heritage sites where the real business of teaching goes on. That's to say, it's through the things that people take away, that the ideological work really kicks in. Royal teaspoons, plastic skulls, embroidered hankies, a cut-out execution kit....I move instinctively towards the books, thinking that I needed to gen up on the latest views of just what all that concentration of power and wealth was all about. Loads of Starkey and Plowden and Mantel. I start to wonder what I know or remember about the Normans. A French woman who was buying a book about Londres, tells me that the Normans weren't French. They were Norman. I said that they did speak French, though. She shrugged as if that was some kind of error either on my part or theirs. How did the Normans get a grip on the courts and establish feudalism across England and Wales? I picked up a couple of booklets.

But then the Tudors. Yes, the Tudors. When I was writing my books on Shakespeare - the one for adults: 'Shakespeare in his times, for our times' (Bookmarks) and the one for children now called 'What's So Special About Shakespeare' (Walker) - the book that excited me the most was Curtis C. Breight, 'Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in Elizabethan England'. (Palgrave Macmillan 1996). So, would there be anything tasty, I wondered in the bookshop here? Something a bit tacky or sensationalist about the Tudors hacking their way to power through the English aristocracy, putting down rebellions and massacring Catholics and chopping down Anabaptists...? Not that I could see.

In the children's section the noble Terry Deary was doing his best with Terrible Tudors, More Terrible Tudors and Terrifying Tudors, but I found myself wondering just how many people did the Tudors execute between 1485 and 1603? What was the human cost for all that grandeur and glory which is paraded in front of us at every opportunity? Nothing in the bookshop gave me a clue.

Back home, some hefty googling (including google books and google scholar) gave me a text book by Cochrane, Marsh and Melville ('Criminal Justice: an Introduction to Philosophies, Theories and Practice'). On page 62 they say that the average death by execution in the Tudor period was about 1000 a year, and in the years 1530-1630, 75,000 people were executed in 'England' - did that mean England AND Wales? And leaves out Ireland? Or includes Ireland? Not sure. Estimated total population of England (really England) in 1600 was 4.6 million.

Whatever the exact details, a fair amount of state killing, state terror was going on. From the top aristocratic families down to the people the Tudors called 'vagabonds'. I read that some 5000 of such people - presumably mostly homeless men - were executed in this period, vagabondage itself being a crime of some sort.

So apart from Terry Deary - who would not say of himself that he was a scholar, no matter how accurate he makes his books - what could I find using google that might beef up my perception of this period in relation to how the state created itself, asserted itself and ruled? After all, hadn't I spent the best part of a late summer afternoon, walking round and through one of the world's largest material manifestations of that power, whether that be through its stones, towers and battlements or through the orbs, sceptres, maces and crowns lovingly displayed inside?

I found this website:

which is interesting but I think underestimates the Tudor persecution of radical Puritans.

And after a bit of scouting and scouring I've made up this little list:

You save:£0.65 ( 5%)

Treason In Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia - Professor Lacey Baldwin Smith; Paperback
You save:£1.00 ( 10%)

PS This looks interesting!

Religious Radicals in Tudor England

 By Joseph Walford Martin

Monday, 27 August 2012

Young people are bad. And can't spell.

If you find that you are in a position of power but feel inadequate about something, you should point the finger at people who are not in a position of power and explain why these people are inadequate.

This works for everything from what  you might call 'bad spelling' or 'standards' to 'morals', 'behaviour', 'politeness', 'respect for authority'.

You in your position of power might well think that  you're bad at spelling, have low standards, bad morals, don't behave very well, aren't very polite and on occasions have no respect for someone who you think is in a higher position than you.

This makes you ashamed.

Ashamed is an uncomfortable place to be.

So, best way to feel better is to tell others that they are the ones who are bad.

This has the advantage of keeping you in your position of power, as it asks of people to turn on each other and blame each other for their situation, rather than blame you.

The best people for blaming are young people.

That's because 'young people' is a phrase that is so general to be meaningless. There is no general 'young person'. So by blaming 'young people',  you enlist the part inside anyone older than 'young' who has ever been jealous of any young people anywhere, who has ever felt that they didn't have enough fun when they were young, or who has ever felt that they didn't do enough of something when they were young. And after all there is a massive industry telling us that  the only way to be beautiful and desirable is to be young. So, it is quite easy to feel jealous.

Then it's your job to turn that jealousy into nastiness and blame. This way you encourage people to think that young people aren't really having a better time than you had or that you are having now. Young people might be having fun but they are bad.

And if young people are bad, then society is going down the pan.

Nice try.

The chaos and disasters of war, poverty, racism, exploitation, oppression weren't created by young people. They were created by older people in power. Powerful older people.

Best to say that young people are bad and maybe they won't get angry with powerful older people.

Maybe they won't even notice.

So, just to be clear:

young people are bad. And can't spell.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

GCSEs: they want to say young people are no good.

A good deal of excellent things have been written about GCSEgate and it will be very interesting to see how Ofqual, the exam boards and Michael Gove manage to wriggle out of it. Most teachers and headteachers with direct responsibility for students sitting the English papers are convinced that what's involved here is a conspiracy. A key part of the government's strategy in dealing with this wave of anger will be an attempt to trivialise the concerns of teachers, students and parents. Their other approach will be an attempt to suggest that these concerns are either mistaken and/or driven by self-interest. However, this is a high-risk strategy. Students, parents, teachers and headteachers are not in toto the government's natural enemies. Of course, some are but many are not. No government that has to seek re-election can risk alienating tens of thousands of its supporters.

Leaving all that to one side, I'm becoming increasingly interested in the cultural agenda going on here. We read all the time of 'grade inflation', 'declining standards' along with the usual exaggerated nonsense about illiteracy and students being 'unable to talk or write' and so on. These complaints and others like them have been levelled by the older generation at the younger generation for hundreds of years. This is what has come to be called the 'narrative of decline' and it's a narrative that usually (but not always) suits a conservative agenda. When politicians and commentators invoke this decline ('broken Britain' etc), there is nearly always an attempt to suggest that the supposed decline can be reversed by going back to when things were better and when, it's claimed, people and society weren't corrupted by 'sex, drugs and rock'n'roll' and/or the 'permissive society' and/or the 'lack of morals' and/or 'lack of authority' and so on.

Needless to say, this all comes with a massive dose of hypocrisy and lies. Politicians and media commentators show not even the slightest tendency towards being more moral (in their own terms) than anyone else. If there is any kind of 'decline' then they are all as much part of the problem as anyone.

Of course, I don't buy into this decline narrative anyway, least of all when it's directed at teachers, education and young people. The advantage of being 66 years old is that I can remember the 50s and 60s very well and no one is going to convince me that my generation were in any way 'better' than the present generation. As I've said many times, we must never forget that the majority of young people in that time were put into Secondary Modern Schools and booted out of fulltime education by 14 or 15 without any qualifications. We will never know what level of education this 'cohort' reached - or didn't reach.

But now I want to make a speculative leap into what we might call 'psychopolitics'. What kind of answer do we get, if we ask 'why do politicians and commentators tell this decline narrative?' Or, 'If people in power and control really believe this stuff, what kind of psycho-socio-political gesture are they making?'  At one level, I believe it is crude and cynical manipulation. There is an understanding in politics that people are not only divided between each other along conservative-liberal, right-left divisions, but are also divided within themselves. That's to say our lives and backgrounds produce within us 'splits'. So, on one particular issue or matter, we might express a belief in change, progress, openness to others and another part of us on another occasion believes or behaves as if we are against change and progress, is fearful of others. Again, we might be in favour of, or capable of being active in some circumstances and in others very passive. Or again, we might be very good at co-operating and collaborating with others in some circumstances and very individualistic on others. Politics is in part about playing with these splits inside us. Conservative politicians are not only keen on recruiting or creating people who are conservative but are also keen on appealing to the conservative sides of people.

So, in this account, the narrative of decline is an attempt to recruit this conservative side of people. It's an attempt to say that the world is indeed unsatisfactory, it has got worse since you were younger and that's because others (not you) have bad morals and people younger than you are not as clever or as well behaved as you are. Of course, it's not only conservative. It's also flattering. You're good. Young people (and the people who educate them) are not as good as you are.

That said, I think there is something else going on. Freud talked about 'projection'. In daily life, this is the process whereby we ascribe to others what we are feeling ourselves. So I might be in a situation where I'm feeling very angry and instead of saying, 'I'm angry', I say, 'You're angry.' And you can repeat that across any emotion or activity: 'you're possessive/jealous/shy/anxious/paranoid' or indeed, 'you're lazy/duplicitous/lying' etc etc. We all say these things, sometimes we're right about the other person, sometimes, though we're 'projecting'. We're simply hiding a feeling we have and telling someone else that they have that feeling.

So here's a theory: what if this narrative of decline is in part a kind of projection? What if there are people who engage in this persistent bad-mouthing of young people and their teachers and carers because they themselves have a strong sense of their own failings? Let's try this: have you ever heard a politician or mainstream commentator begin one of these speeches about what's gone wrong with Britain etc with an explanation of how bad they are at spelling, or how it is their own lack of moral compass that is letting the side down? Yes, we get politicians and others talking about their pasts (eg Louise Mensch) but they're all much better now, aren't they? Apparently, none of them binge-drink, snort coke, smoke dope, are disrespectful to their superiors (whatever that means) or do things which jeopardise family life. And yet of course loads of them do. Now this is the important bit: though loads of them do, such politicians have an inner policeman-priest telling them how bad this is (bad in itself and bad for their careers), so you try various ways of denying that you are doing these 'bad' things, or of trying to explain them away.  This of course is what Freud called 'repression'. We all do repression but we don't all go about telling millions of people how bad everyone has become - their spelling, sex lives, drinking lives, orderliness etc. Projection in the Freudian sense arises out of repression. As you repress and hide and conceal these 'bad' things, you feel the need to tell other people how wrong and bad they are. Shakespeare anticipates this with the character and actions of Angelo in 'Measure for Measure'. Here is a modern political leader, carrying out a moral crusade in public, while trying to have sex with a nun as part of a deal to give clemency to her brother.

My speculation is that many of those in power over us have very similar feelings as we all do: feelings of inadequacy, feelings of guilt and shame, feelings of having done wrong, feelings of not living up to the standards asked of us by parents, teachers, religious and political leaders in our childhoods. Instead of being honest or even ironic about such matters, they project these feelings on to young people. They are the failures. They are the ones who are letting us all down. They are the ones who are eroding values.

Needless to say, I think precisely the opposite is the case. I believed that we are being ruled over by a venal, corrupt elite. Whatever failings may or may not be ascribed to any group of people without power and without wealth, they are as nothing to the gigantic theft of time, money, effort and resources which ends up as gigantic wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny, tiny few. We must never forget that the dire financial situation the world finds itself in, wasn't caused even in the tiniest, tiniest degree by young people not spelling or punctuating properly, it wasn't caused by young people smoking dope or boozing their bums off or by rioting. It was caused by massively powerful, rich people selling each other debt (which, incidentally, they often hid from each other ie in their own terms, they behaved immorally with each other, acting in bad faith and lying.).

Yes, there is a crisis - that far along the decline narrative I go - but it wasn't caused by a decline in standards of the least powerful, least wealthy because they didn't have the means to cause the crisis. To say that they did, is to blame the victim. And that precisely is where psycho-social-political 'projection' gets you: a 'narrative' that blames those suffering the most. You people are poor because you can't spell and you are immoral. As long ago as the seventeenth century, radicals had spotted that the notion of 'sin' was very useful if you want to people to blame themselves for their unfortunate circumstances.

All that may seem a far cry from the row about the GCSEs but I am of the view that it is very much part of the matter. That's to say, every time someone goes on about 'grade inflation', lying behind it is an accusation that young people are not as 'good' as 'we' are. In reality, the fear is that 'we' are not very 'good' but as that can't be admitted, 'we' accuse 'them' of being the 'bad' ones.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Simple, compound,complex problems: grammar

Linguistics is a fascinating and wonderful subject. However, linguists themselves rarely boast that their craft/art/science has cracked all or even most of the problems that the linguists set for themselves. I had a very pleasant and interesting correspondence with Richard Hudson over the fact that Roy Hodgson signed off from the European Football championship with the phrase '...but it wasn't to be.'

I'm going to assume that almost everyone reading that will know what he meant - even from that tiny extract. He was of course talking about the fact that he thought England were going to win but...'it wasn't to be.' What did he mean? That it was written in the stars? That it was fate? Destiny? Or what?

Let's leave that to one said for a moment and ask, what's going on grammatically? From the point of view of tense, the sentences does one of those marvellous things of talking in strange ways about time. Hodgson is talking in the present about something which happened in the past (losing the game) but referring to something or other not happening in the future - one of the meanings of 'to be', ie 'going to happen'...So, to translate, we might say it means 'but it wasn't going to happen.' - which is another football phrase.

But when Richard got to work deciding on the functions of the words and/or phrases in what Hodgson said, it got pretty complicated. In the end - I hope I don't do him an injustice here - he said that he would have to admit that it was what linguists have to say is a stand-alone, an expression or idiom, which preserves strange, compressed or archaic forms all of their own. After all we say, things like 'More haste, less speed' without getting too worried about putting in a verb. We say 'Come what may'...Mm? Come what may what? What may happen, perhaps? But we don't say it.

So, cop out or not, linguists have a category for the stand-alone where some of the usual patterns, conventions of language don't apply.

But linguists are also busy categorising languages. Again, most people here will be familiar with 'parts of speech' and then at least some of the functional stuff about 'subject' and 'object' and the like.

But there are also longstanding classifications of sentences.

Brief word about sentences. They're not as immediately obvious as schools make out. Sticking with the written language, spend a bit of time looking at advertisements, poetry and plays and virtually any rule that you might want to come up with concerning sentences will be broken by these genres of writing. If we're honest, the home of the sentence as a consistent, fairly regular, rule-bound way of writing is in continuous prose - newspapers, reports, a large part of most novels, accounts, formal letters.

So, within that 'home' or writing, are there different kinds of sentences? According to the body of wisdom that is linguistics, yes.And anyone teaching English in schools today, inherits or receives this wisdom from linguistics and tries to teach it to pupils in schools. That's the idea.

So, the wisdom goes like this: there are simple, compound and complex-sentences. There are also compound-complex sentences which combine at least one element of compound and one element of complex.

In short, it says, that a simple sentence is one which contains one main verb.Above us on the page I've written, the very first sentence is a 'simple'. No matter how many adjectives I have stuffed into it, not matter the fact that I've used the word 'and' to link those two adjectives, it's 'simple' because it has no additional clauses ie groups of words which have verbs in them.

Now to compound and complex. The principle invoked here is that when you create sentences with several main verbs you create clauses that are have different relations with each other. The argument is that sometimes these are 'dependent' and sometimes not.

Here's an obvious example of a sentence where the two halves don't depend on each other for meaning. You can take one away and it's 'stand-alone'.

I ran to the bus stop and I felt good.

Nice symmetrical sentence made up of two clauses, linked or held together by 'and'. This is a 'compound sentence'.

But a 'complex' sentence is one where one depends on the other. Let's take an 'if' sentence.

'If you talk to me in that tone of voice, you're not going anywhere.'

Clearly these two halves depend on each other. The 'you're not going on anywhere' has conditions attached. if fact if 'you' stop talking in that tone of voice, maybe you will go somewhere!

So, anyone teaching this sort of thing, can feel pretty confident that this all stands together, makes sense, and can be explained (as it must) to year 6 children.

But how about a sentence with 'but' in it?

The grammarians tell us that 'but' is a 'co-ordinating conjunction' and the sentences it appears in are 'compound'.

Let's try it:

'I wanted soup, but they only had olives.'

'He would have gone out, but he didn't.'

Now tell me I'm just being irritating, or missing the point; tell me that centuries of wisdom lie behind designating this in the same category as the 'and' sentence, and not in the same category as the 'if' sentence, but it doesn't feel as clearcut to me.

Why am I saying 'but' in these sentences? In order to create contrast, to highlight roads not taken, either through circumstance, misfortune or personal decision. Now for me that is a kind of dependence, if not of the same order as an 'if' clause, or a 'because' or 'when' clause say.

I'll say more, I think that problems like this - which of course may only be a problem in my head - are why children or indeed all of us find grammar difficult. So what do we do? We shift gears and go mechanical. We look up a chart and learn the chart.

Here it is:

Compound sentences have the following conjunctions:

for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

Complex sentences have the following conjunctions:

 because, since, after, although, or when (or a relative pronoun such as:) that, who, or which. 

Hands up, I'm baffled again. One version of the bible reads:

“I cannot do what you ask,  for I was born to be a king.”

Doesn't this have exactly the same meaning as 'because'? Can't the two be swapped with the choice only to be made on account of sound, or whether it sounds a bit more olde worlde to say 'for'? Why would the two sentences switch category on account of swapping 'for' for 'because'?

Ok,  you're now sick of me throwing these spanners in the works. These things are hard enough to learn anyway, without me coming along and making it seem illogical. So, as I say, what do we do? We learn these things as charts or tables so that when we go into the exam or test, we can 'get it right'.

I did that for my O-level English language exam in 1962. I had learned all my grammar charts and tables and, in those days, we labelled the dependent clauses as 'clauses of time' or 'clauses of condition' and the like and each clause had its own conjunction. Our teacher, Mrs Turnbull would walk round the class (we were 15 and 16) and point at one of us and say, 'If!' and you would have to say, 'adverbial clause of condition!'

So, we had it all sorted. Got into the exam room, and the dependent clause began with 'no matter what...' We hadn't been given 'no matter what...' as a conjunction of anything. We didn't know what to write. Was it an adverbial clause of 'concession' or an 'adverbial clause of condition' or was it something else altogether that Mrs Turnbull hadn't taught us????

This expresses my frustration with all this. I'm in favour of the attempt to categorize language. I don't think that it is as cut and dried and as clear as actual usage is. Because we treat it as if it is beyond debate, it often leaves us baffled and bemused. We learn it as rote learning which doesn't answer our questions and confusions  - some of which may be valid. This makes it less useful as a piece of knowledge in the short or long term  - as it doesn't tally with our view of reality. And it may be that we go into the test and some clever-dick of an examiner has decided this year to catch us all out anyway and come up with something that he or she knows is going to be a problem for those of us who've done exactly what we've been told to so, which learn the chart.

That said, let me try this on you. Sometimes we say or write sentences which are linked but have no conjunction!

You go in the pool, I'm off.

That's what we actually say. Now this makes linguists do something rather peculiar. They say that what's going on here is that we're using an expression behind which lie some other words eg

If you go in the pool, I'm off

In other words it is really, really, really a complex sentence because there's an 'if' hanging around somewhere in the ether near it or behind it.

I don't buy that at all. The whole sentence is piece of very common usage. Because of the way we say it, because of the context in which we say it, this is an example of simple sentence which is in reality a complex one.

Grammar isn't easy. There is no reason why it should be easy. It doesn't help anyone to pretend it is. There is no evidence that teaching young children this sort of thing, makes them better readers or writers. I'm all in favour of introducing children to categories and functions only so long as it's done with an open-ended, enquiring, problem-solving way, leaving open the possibility that several answers might be necessary.

This is a must-read letter from Reading Recovery teacher

" I am a Reading Recovery teacher. RR is based on more than 40 years of research and analysed data. It is proven to be cost effective. It works. The government knows it works. But it is not run as a business. RR's only purpose is to help children learn to read...

When we read we bring together 3 sources of information:
Visual, which means the words and letters and punctuation and layout etc
Structure, which means what is it possible to say in this language?
Meaning, does it make sense?

Children and adults who can read are using these automatically. When children learn to read, right from the start they are bringing together the 3 sources of information, as you well know.

When children who can read make mistakes on the phonic screener it is probably because their brains are overriding the nonsense; they are trying to make meaning because that is what reading is.
Lots of the readers at my school did not do well at the phonics screener. The head teacher was shocked - it is a high achieving / outstanding school in all other aspects. She said "But I can read and I know what the non-words say?" I said, "Yes but you are not 6 years old and you were expecting it. You are maybe more used to the world trying to catch you out?"

And from now on there will be even more phonic drilling, so that next year the schools will get 'better results', and the govt will say, 'Told you so, phonics is the answer'. We (but not me!) are going to be teaching children to deliberately switch off the use of structure and meaning and just decode using visual information like a robot can do.

At the moment the children get 30 minutes phonics a day and 10 minutes, if they are lucky, a WEEK reading with their teacher. They hardly ever get read to, just for the fun of it. Teachers don't have time for this. Given many children's impoverished oral language, these days, research shows that little children should be getting 3 stories a day. This never happens. Never.

Although I would make very different use of the time, 30 minutes phonics a day does have some relevance to real reading of real words, but is now going to morph into even more time spent on learning to sound out nonsense words.

Interestingly, the contract for supervising ECaR which also looks after Reading Recovery, has been removed from the Institute of Education and given to a university (Edge Hill) that is also now going to be responsible for pushing phonics schemes at us. The phonics people have been working very hard to squash RR and it looks as if they have done it. RR is trademarked and copyrighted etc, so is not available for someone to step in and make £millions out of it...
£millions have already been made out of phonics but it would seem the train is not yet full of gravy.

My soul is destroyed."

Phonics in the nursery? Practitioner writes


Please go there and read Penny Webb's  blogs. They are brilliant.

"Those who know me well – will know that I volunteered to take part in the pilot inspections for the revised EYFS.

This was like a real inspection – complete with feedback and a report – although both the report and the grade are not ‘for real’ and my current report and grade will stand until my next ‘proper’ inspection – any time really – but most likely after October 2013.

As part of the feedback the inspector mentioned that I did not take the opportunity to introduce early phonics with the children in my care.

I should mention that I had 4 children in my care on inspection day and all 4 were only just 2 years old – or almost 2.

The ‘recommendation for improvement was;

‘ Enhance the opportunities provided within children’s play for them to improve their understanding of letters and sounds to support even better progress in communication, language and literacy’

Now I have enough common sense to know that it is not necessary to sit the children down to repeat letter sounds after me or to buy an expensive ‘phonic’s toolkit’. Nor do I need to get them to colour pictures of images to go with said phonics toolkit, nor do I even have to break down every word I say into its phonically correct components.

And if I didn’t just ‘know’ this – I could refer to the Early Years Foundation Stage – where it says under the PRIME AREAS – that is the areas that I must concentrate on for the under three’s

Communication and Language

Listening and attention: children listen attentively in a range of situations. They listen to stories. accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions. They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.

Understanding; children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about their experiences and in response to stories and events.

Speaking; children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners needs. They use past, present and future forms accuratley when talking about events that have happened or are about to happen in the future. They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.


That means children who are FIVE not TWO!!!

But hang on – where is the mention of ‘letters and Sounds’ in communication and language?

Is it me or is it not mentioned?

Oh of course silly me – I need to check the guidance document – which of course is just for guidance but even so it seems to be mentioned a lot. Off to check – back soon!

Back – so in communication and language – the Prime Area – there is no mention of letter and sounds or phonics.

So my knowledge appears to be spot on – NO phonics or letters and sounds needed for two year olds  (or indeed any child up to end of EYFS ) in the prime area of communication and language.

I am curious though now – I keep reading in well respected childcare magazines and from well known experts about the government ‘forcing’ young children to undertake phonics  ’instruction’ and to follow the letters and sounds pack .

Off to check the specific area of ‘Literacy’ – back soon!

Ah – I have found it! The mention of phonics / letters and sounds

It is in the guidance for those children aged 40 – 60+ months but interestingly NOT for those children aged up to 50 months

So unless my understanding of written English is ‘not secure’ the governments own documents both the statutory framework EYFS 2012 AND the supporting guidance document DO NOT say we must teach the children phonics – they DO NOT say we must introduce letters and sounds at 2 or 3 or even 4 years of age.

It says that by offering opportunities and experiences such as those mentioned in the guidance document – that somewhere between 40 and 60+ months of age the children will be able to confidently use the skills they have achieved through play, through speaking and listening, through stories and rhymes – to decode words and start the process of reading and writing.

It even suggests  by not including the statements about phonics or letters and sounds in the 30 – 50 m age group – that we SHOULD NOT be introducing these aspects until a child is over 50 m (so 4yrs and 2m as a minimum age) unless of course the child shows an interest and WANTS to find out more about the make up of words.

I will go further and say that – in my opinion –  any child not in full time school – should NOT be introduced to phonics or letters and sounds unless the child wants to.

Once in full time school – they will have a full school year to become familiar with phonics and letters and sounds before the end of early years foundation stage profile is completed.

The Early Learning Goals are for children aged 5 – lets not forget that – and although I still think that for some children 5 is too young to have mastered these skills – and that there is A LOT MORE to reading, writing and understanding the written word than just phonics – PLEASE  follow the governments statutory requirements and guidance documents (and your professional judgement about when a child is ready to start the road to discovery of the delights of the written word, rather than the hype giving in training, in books and in childcare publications and websites.

There is a lovely sentence on the bottom of every page of the guidance document which enforces one of the overarching principles in the statutory Framework. It says;

Children develop at their own rates, and in their own ways. The development statements and their order should not be taken as necessary steps for individual children. They should not be used as checklists. The age / stage bands overlap because these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development.

Finally – some may regard my opinions as uninformed or as just personal opinion – however my ‘credentials are based on over 34 years of childcare – both with my own children, my grandchildren and the many (well over 150) children that I have had the pleasure of caring for – plus knowledge gained over involvement in many aspects of early years including that of trainer,  adviser and assessor.

Just using my own children as my evidence

Daughter One – Was not taught using phonics – she was taught via the ‘Peter and Jane’ books. She was an avid reader by age of 6 and was described by teachers as having an extensive vocabulary and an excellent understanding of what she was reading. However she was not interested in academic studying.  Being an excellent reader did not lead to a university education.

Daughter Two – Taught herself to read at age of 3 (by joining in with reading time with her sister who was two years older). So also learnt through Peter and Jane. She was also an avid reader and got through mountains of books. By age 8 she had read all the books in school reading scheme and a lot of library books. She went to university.

Daughter Three – Learnt through having a good memory – and sight reading. The school used the Oxford Tree scheme with Biff and Chip but she was not that interested in reading the books. She is also an avid reader – but not bothered about school in general and dropped out in sixth form. So being a excellent reader did not help her achieve academic success.

Daughter Four – Struggled could not really read beyond first stage books until 8 or 9  despite the use of phonics. However she had a dream – she wanted to go to university to become a teacher. She continued to struggle but despite this she got into university and was tested there for dyslexia – and found to have a reading age of 14. So not being able to read at an early age did not prevent her from achieving her dream.

Each daughter was treated as an individual, each was encouraged and supported – but the age at which they were able to read and their success and enjoyment of reading – did not indicate their future academic success.

Oh and myself?

Janet and John reading scheme for me – no phonics at all – I was taught with the C A T method – but I still learnt to read.

So in conclusion  in my opinion – Phonics do have a place but are not essential. Early reading does not provide an indicator to academic success and neither does late mastering of reading indicate low academic achievement.

Those of you who have excellent reading and writing skills will have noticed that I don’t. Spelling terrible (even with spell check) grammer ?- well enough said. My guess is that I also am dyslexic – but never been tested. I do find writing a challenge because I am aware of my difficulties – BUT that does not stop me from running a successful business or from expressing opinion on this blog or indeed anything else.

I would love to read your comments on this – am I alone or do others agree with me?"

[nd of blog]

Readers fail 'reading' test? More evidence please.

I'm getting more and more tweets and messages from teachers and parents telling me of children who are good and/or progressing readers who have failed the phonics screening check (PSC).

We will of course never see any statistics on this because teachers weren't given a chance to do two tests in June. What would have been really interesting would be for teachers to do their usual spot checks on children's reading development alongside the phonics screening check and to compare the results.

However, it is possible that some teachers did this anyway. If you did, can you please write to me at  so that it can go up on this blog?

You can remain completely anonymous. I can explain the reasons why you need to do this in the blog.

If you are a parent and you know that your child is doing well at reading but failed the phonics screening check, perhaps you can give us some anecdotal evidence around, say, what your child is reading, how, how often? And  then tell us you and/or your child's reaction to failing the check.

And teachers or parents, what happens next? Does the child now have to do more systematic synthetic phonics? Is the child 'allowed' by the school to do other kinds of reading as well? Or not?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Phonics schemes instead of new books: teacher writes

Hi Michael,

I have read this blog posting with great interest, as a classroom teacher of 16 years with a TLR of literacy I have seen many bandwagons being jumped upon by those in government. SSP is simply one of those. I find it amazingly insulting that the questioning of "basic phonic" teaching has been seen as something that schools have up until this point not been teaching correctly and furthermore that we would struggle to bring a book or story to life in the classroom! Michael Rosen's response to Rose echoes that of the majority if not all teaching staff I have come across. To further rub salt into my already raw wounds I have recently been informed that my budget for book-buying in our amazingly under-stocked library, has been held over in order to ensure that teaching of SS phonics is implemented throughout all ages in my primary school. (4-11 year olds!) This means that for the next 12 months at least, my children get a grand total of zero new reading materials, none - all for the sake of an unproven strategy. So my point to Mr Rose is to stop bandwagon jumping and actually prove to us the value of SSP. As I for one can see none. It is just another benchmark or position-league-table stick with which to beat already weighed-down teachers.

Best wishes

It's Jim Rose and the phonics-is-lovely show again.

Here is a letter from Jim Rose (he of the Rose Report) published in yesterday's Guardian:

While continuing to inveigh against so-called synthetic phonics, Michael Rosen now at least admits that "basic phonics" should be part of the "mixed methods" that he advocates for teaching reading (Education, 7 August). He fails to recognise, however, that synthetic phonics is "basic phonics".

Beginner readers of any age need to learn how the alphabet works for reading and writing. It is often forgotten that decoding words for reading is the reverse of encoding words for writing (spelling), both are "basic" to becoming literate. Most children learn to decode more easily than they learn to encode. Decoding and encoding embrace sets of interdependent sub-skills such as blending and segmenting sounds and need to be taught systematically until beginners can apply them automatically.

The great majority of children can be taught to do this quite well by the age of seven. Nor should it be assumed that all the fun is to be had only by immersing children in real books. There is plenty of evidence to show that children find high-quality phonic work rewarding and derive great satisfaction from taking part in the activities it presents to achieve the goal of reading – understanding what is read.

For young children success depends as much on well-timed, skilled and regular teaching of phonics as it does upon securing good attitudes to reading by making sure they receive a rich experience of high-quality fiction and non-fiction books, including well-told stories with opportunities to talk about and act them out from an early age. All of this is massively dependent on equipping children with a strong command of the spoken word; how that is best achieved deserves far greater attention than is often realised in practice.

The interminable debate about the teaching of early reading grinds on mired in arguing about fake opposites that set phonics at odds with the enjoyment of reading. At a time when we know more about the teaching of reading and writing than ever before, it would be no bad thing to move on from the sterile argy-bargy about phonics and focus on how best to train and support teachers to teach reading and writing to greatest effect.
Jim Rose
Haslemere, Surrey

My reply:

Let's take this step-by-step.

1. 'Michael Rosen now at least admits that 'basic phonics' should be part of 'mixed methods' etc.
No, Jim not just 'now'. I've been bringing up children for 36 years and in all that time, I've sat with them using 'basic phonics' as they learned to read. Go through all the literature of the people you despise, UKLA, the Goodmans, Stephen Krashen, and you will all find them talking about 'basic phonics' or something similar. So, just to be clear, the objection is to:

expensive, intensive, exclusive, 'systematic synthetic phonics' (SSP) .

Expensive? Yes, costing millions to schools and to the government (ie us) through the subsidy of up to £3000 per school to buy the approved scheme.
Intensive? Yes, because of the daily half hour 'alphabetic' work that is prescribed for reception, year 1 and for those who 'fail' the end of year phonics screening check.
Exclusive? Yes, because many who back this system talk of 'first, fast and only' and some school managements are interpreting this as giving children only the government approved phonics schemes for children to read.
SSP? Yes, because this is the latest commercial model, or latest form of this way of teaching initial reading.

Remember, Jim, the objection to all this is based on something very, very simple: that neither you nor anyone else has any evidence that teaching expensive, intensive, exclusive SSP will get more children to read for meaning than using 'mixed methods'. Neither I nor anyone else coming from our side of the argument knows why you and those on your side of the argument don't get honest about this. You have no evidence for such a huge outlay. What you have evidence for is that teaching phonics helps children to 'decode', ie to sound out the words phonically. That is not reading.

2. ' Beginner readers of any age need to learn how the alphabet works for reading and writing ' No, Jim, this is the distortion which says that learning a complicated procedure of any kind must always involve an A before a B and that learning is linear, step by step. In fact, beginner readers can and do learn to read in several ways at the same time. That's how you learned to read, that's how I learned to read. We had texts that were not simply or only based on teaching how the alphabet works. Every parent who sits with their child reading the same picture book over and over again knows that all sorts of kinds of reading go on: hearing the sound of the written 'code' in its sequences and 'strings'; making predictions of what is coming next based on the sound and grammar of those strings, recognizing letters, parts of words, phrases and sentences on the page as they are repeated or even, as many parents do, leaving a gap for the child to say what's there. This is not of itself sufficient, of course there are many times when we need to make these things  explicit, and yet, again and again, many of us can tell you of occasions when children have appeared to teach themselves the next step in the learning to read process as well as us teaching them.

It is the experience of many teachers, parents and children, following the phonics screening check that many children who are already good readers have shown themselves to be 'bad' or 'not very good at phonics'. How can that be? Very simple: we learn to read in different ways, some of us with specific letter-sound correspondence (where it's regular), others not so, or not so much. And why not? Why assume that we should all be people for whom a purely phonic system is what must happen or, in your words above: 'need to learn'.

3. Fun, ah yes, fun. You'll remember I'm sure, Jim, how  you invited me in to see you when I was children's laureate. We sat in a bare bureaucratic room at the Department for Education (then called something else of course) and in front of you on the table was a copy of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. The conversation that took place next went something like this, as I remember it:

'We've put the alphabetic principle in place, Michael, but now we need to make books come alive. How do you make books come alive?'

I then told you how I perform 'Bear Hunt' and my poems in schools and then, somewhat incredulously, began to tell you how teachers, librarians, authors and actors have for some fifty years been trying to make books 'come alive' in classrooms, schools and libraries.

Then, you said enthusiastically something along the lines of 'this is the sort of thing we need to be going on everywhere' - and then I left.

Not long after, you lost your job or the government lost its job, or both, and we've not seen each other since. However, since then, millions of pounds have been spent on putting that 'alphabetic principle in place' - as I've said, based on zero evidence that it helps children to read for meaning any better than what was there before.

And how much as been done to 'make books come alive' in classrooms, schools and libraries?  Have schools been able to spend money on books, classroom libraries, libraries, librarians, the school library service, authors' visits, theatre visits? Everything that I've heard from the NGOs and library services is that the provision of real books and the expertise to help teachers 'bring them alive' has been decimated. It has in fact been replaced - at least partially - by the expenditure on the evidence-less drive to SSP. You talk of the uselessness of 'fake opposites'. Well, can I suggest it's not 'fake' at all. It's one load of dosh being spent on one thing rather than other.

But, just as importantly, has the government followed up on Ofsted's recommendation that every school should develop policies on reading for enjoyment? Not a bit of it. I sat with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb when he quite explicitly said that that wasn't the job of government any more. They weren't doing that thing (implication: 'Labour thing') of demanding that schools 'do policies'. How liberal, how libertarian, and a few months later in came the Draft Primary Curricula, micromanaging speaking, listening, reading and writing down to which sounds should be learned before which sounds, which words in which word-lists should be learned and when (another piece of evidence-less nonsense) and which bits of 'grammar' should be learned and when.

So, as you weigh in against what we are arguing, perhaps you can lift your head up one time and see that almost everything that comes from your side of the argument about 'making books come alive', 'reading for enjoyment' is not much more than pieties and well-wishing.

4. There is a huge body of expertise in how to 'make books come alive' - from researchers in organisations like UKLA, professional associations like NATE and LATE, classroom teachers in no professional organisations who are expected to wait meekly for the next government literacy initiative whilst belying their day-to-day knowledge and experience, the professional NGOs like Booktrust, National Literacy Trust, the Reading Association, the writers for children - whether as individuals - or in associations like the Society of Authors, the Campaign for the Book, the National Association of Writers in Education, the School Library Association, the School Library Service,  in many theatre groups working in schools, arts centres and theatres, and in the education departments of the museum service.   This huge body of expertise is unco-ordinated, it has no 'policy' to back it up, there is no real will to ensure that all schools get equal slices of what's on offer, it's piecemeal and patchy. That's not a criticism of single person who works in any single one of these organisations. It's a criticism of why and how it is that the 'reading for enjoyment' and 'making books come alive' is seen as something that doesn't need a government drive, doesn't need to be policy, doesn't need a big nudge and backing and prioritising for schools to develop policies but the evidence-less SSP programme does.

Or put another, way, there is the very evidence that you cited in your Rose Report, Jim, or the evidence that I've cited from Mariah Evans et al at the University of Nevada, or the evidence gathered by Professor Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California that this 'reading for enjoyment' stuff isn't some kind of wishy-washy thing. It is the one key way in which children and  young people 'get' the written language (for reading and writing), the one key way in which they become comfortable with moving between concrete and abstract, the one key way in which they learn to scan texts, compare and contrast them, and indeed to formulate their own categories (or 'sets') of written texts. It's the 'rigour' as you folks like to call it, that comes from prolonged exposure to reading for fun, choosing your own books, and having a chance to talk about them without fear of failure.

The day you and your masters really do provide schools with time, money, space and legitimacy to this, we'll be cooking on all 4 burners.

Schooling is about every child in a locality.

Over the next 12 months the basic shape, structure and composition of education in England is going to change. Many 'maintained' schools (ie schools run by local authorities) will either opt to become academies, find that their Tory local authority has given up on them, shoving them into the hands of trusts and consortia or that one by one they will be forced to become academies by Michael Gove.

The press often presents this as a debate about 'schools' and whether this or that status of 'a school' is better for 'a school' or not. So we read debates, apparently  based on research, as to whether charities or local authorities or fee-paying schools or 'foundation' schools are the 'best'.

I think that this completely misses the point. Or worse. That's to say, the moment we get drawn into that argument, we take out of the discussion the fundamental principle behind universal state education: that it is for all. Swapping stats about this or that kind of school is what we might call micro-stats.

Perhaps the best way of looking at this is by considering how most children attend schools. They do it in a locality where there parents and carers live, and where a 'cohort' of children in that locality go through the system. (Of course plenty of people migrate from one locality to another but that's by no means the majority, so let's leave that to one side for the moment.) So this 'cohort' - the total number of children in a locality - will be educated. If one or two schools in that area are excellent - according to any criteria we might choose to pick on - it is of no use to any children and students who are not in those excellent schools. Now, if we put into that mix, that the main reason why these excellent schools are excellent is that they have subtly or not so subtly selected their intakes on the basis of ability (or conversely refused children for a perceived lack of ability) then of course it now becomes impossible for the other schools to become as 'excellent' as the excellent school! What is happening  in this model is that children are being divided up into good and not so good schools.

Now again, let's build into this mix 'competition'. Underlying the local authority system (after the break-up of the 1944 system of division of schools into Grammars and Secondary Moderns) was the principle (not always adhered to)  that schools could and should co-operate, that there was no virtue in them trying to out-do each other. Quite the opposite: that co-operating in, say, staff development, use of facilities etc, benefited the whole locality, the whole 'cohort' of that locality. There have been plenty of times I've sat in halls and heard local dignitaries, inspectors, advisers, teachers, librarians talking about 'our' schools, meaning all the schools in 'our' town, in 'our' borough and the like.

We should be quite clear, it is precisely this 'our' in the phrase 'our schools' that Michael Gove is smashing. In his eyes and in the outlook of his colleagues in this government, this 'our' is the enemy. It is, they think, anything from outdated civic or municipal socialism to what they call 'stalinism'. In fact, it was and is (where it remains) a rational way of trying to treat us as people with equal rights of access to the best possible education. I say 'trying' because  in some respects, it was only a start, and there was much more that could have been achieved and we can of course hope and struggle so that it one day will. So, for example, there were in many areas only very tentative beginnings to such things as all-school teachers' conferences; development of local curricula; strategic planning involving classroom teachers as well as school managements; involvement of all-school parents' representatives in issues of education and so on...

However, we are in a very different position now. The academy system is based on a completely different model. At the heart of it is a replica of the business model: competition. The academies compete for 'customers' and will succeed or fail depending on their ability to win them. The propaganda on this is of course that competition is good, it weeds out 'the bad', it makes everyone do their best, survival of the fittest etc. One problem: we're talking about children's, parents', teachers' and school workers' lives here. Time is of the essence. A failing school is that child's schooling. A school that is not winning the competition is losing, and as anyone and everyone knows who has ever had anything to do with education, a school that is not winning or even perceived as not winning can in a matter of months turn into a disaster area. In part, that's because we run schools in a very hierarchical way (for better or worse) where the school management are inevitably, by virtue of the amount of power invested in them, absolutely crucial to whether a school functions efficiently or not. We've all seen it happen: a school with the skids under it, for whatever reason - sometimes for no other reason than the ill-health or prolonged absence of one or  two key figures in the hierarchy - can start losing 'customers', losing teachers and it's going under. What's going on here is that that part of the cohort for no intrinsic reason of its own, is being junked. That is that group of children's education down the pan.

Usually when this happens, the way this is described nationally or locally in the press  is that this school is 'no good', that its management is faulty, its governance 'weak' and the like whereas what is really happening is that the system of running all the schools in that locality hasn't been strong enough to ensure that all schools, all teachers, all staff are co-operating with each other for all that locality's children. It was hard enough in the past to enable this to happen, with local authorities sometimes behaving in high-handed and patrician ways, but now, with the academy system, it is virtually impossible.

So, let's not get drawn into any argument about the virtues or otherwise of this or that kind of school. That's not the issue. The only thing we should discuss are the virtues or otherwise of systems of educating the whole of a locality's cohort  from pre-school through to post-16 and on into adult education. To date, there is no better system than local, democratically and co-operatively run schools, intent on educating everyone, and not on poaching 'customers' from each other. What this government has done very cunningly is move the whole argument away from locality ie where very nearly all of us live, to an argument about type of school and we end up on their territory of the argument not our own.

A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart

Here is a link to an article which passes round the mathematicians' fraternity:

A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart

Please read, discuss with fellow parents, teachers, children, students...

Happy to post replies or comments up on this blog.

"Whatever method worked..."

From Ira Lightman on my facebook page:

Michael, I heartily agree with you about challenging Gove on high pressured "only criterion of success" immediate necessity times tables learning. The pressure is horrible. I do visiting artist / poet work in schools to improve maths learning. I enthuse so much, and am quite effective, that teachers themselves start to try liking maths again and, in that conversation with me, routinely confess to some humiliation in their own childhood where some maths skill (considered "easy" by one method only of doing it) had humiliated them in class or in front of a parent. I myself never scored less than 90% at maths, and have natural recall (I have been diagnosed as "verging on the autistic spectrum") but my eldest son, now 10, had great troubles with maths, especially rote learning. What maths spods who dislike language don't get is, as you say when you blog about sudoku, all maths operations are abstraction piled on abstraction. The student needs to feel safe. It's like classical music. One needs to HEAR all the lines before one can appreciate harmony and counterpoint. My son disliked turning quantities into symbols for numbers. He likes reality, chunky knobbly reality. That's why he loves words. Words feel unique one from the other to him, in each context of each story. Conventional maths teaching loves to categorize and affix an absolute value to each of the symbols 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0. That's why spods (like me) who disliked confusing social interaction at school leap on it (and, later in life, need poetry to broaden them). I taught my son every Saturday morning by WHATEVER METHOD WORKED, visualizing, using analogy, rhythm, a little dance, and NO MATTER HOW SLOW. This teaches mathematical thinking, and has been an education for me. I held his hand through every spaghetti junction of abstraction until he perceived it. My son is now in the top five of mathematicians in his class, yet still gets punished for being too slow at it. But he is slowly recognizing times tables because he has encountered them manipulating them so often. Like learning a second language. The problem with maths learning is the culture around it, adults who failed with jealousy, adults who succeeded but whom nobody integrated back into the social world and feel like the Master Race of the Misunderstood. As with your work on books, the key is immersion, play, and questions.

Times tables - part of our mental map - or should be

Here's another contribution (not from me) to the times tables debate

The current proposals for reform of the primary maths curriculum appear to be yet another strand in Michael Gove's ideological assault on learning. As with the 'facts, facts, facts' approach to history teaching, it seems to be a case of treating learning as merely a series of boxes to tick: specific items of knowledge, separated from each other. It runs contrary to more egalitarian notions of learning, which grasp the complexity of learning and focus on conceptual development: making connections, understanding and applying concepts, developing higher levels of thinking.

The government's latest is also part of the obsessive teacher-blaming and determination to distract us from the real (political and economic) causes of high unemployment and poverty that we expect from the Tories.

But opposition to Gove's ideology should not mean rejecting the notion of multiplication tables as a core understanding. Indeed they are valuable to conceptual development. They are not simply a discreet factual topic (like, say, learning the names of the world's capital cities).

We should reject the absurdly prescriptive approach of demanding that ALL children must know their times tables by a certain age - why nine years old anyway? where does that come from? - and reject the framing of times tables as one of a series of 'basic skills' like spelling that are given a reified status. Actually, they are cognitively very different to spelling - for example, learning how to spell is all about developing a grasp of both patterns and variations (and one aspect of developing competence in writing), whereas times tables are finite and clearly defined. Put bluntly: you just have to learn the buggers.

Can someone be good at Maths, go on to study the subject at university, etc, without knowing their times tables? No doubt they can. This isn't about the subject of Maths - though I can't help thinking that any Maths student would benefit from memorising times tables, considering how valuable they are for arithmetic. No - it is about recognising a very useful building block in conceptual understanding.

People sometimes say 'But when do I ever need to use times tables in everyday life?' If we apply such a narrow, reductive utilitarian logic there is little point in ever learning anything. In an age when you can look pretty much anything up on Wikipedia, why learn anything so that you can 'use' it? The point is that - once mentally embedded - a grasp of basic multiplication becomes part of how we comprehend the world (along with a whole bunch of other skills, concepts and understandings - let's ditch the sacred halo around times tables). It is part of what might loosely be termed a mental map of the world.

During the Olympics I spent far too many hours tuned into TV coverage or listening to Radio 5 Live. During those many hours I must have done mental arithmetic literally hundreds of times: calculating and comparing speeds, distances, etc. Of course you can live without that kind of capacity for arithmetic, but it illustrates the point that we actually use arithmetic all the time, even if not consciously aware that we're doing so. Every time I go shopping, every time I use a cash machine, every time I buy a drink in a bar, every time I check a utility bill... you get the idea.

Being able to multiply quickly, and without paper or technology, is not the be-all and end-all. It shouldn't be given a reified status or be presented to children as an obstacle over which they must jump before proceeding any further. It shouldn't be taught in such a way that children feel a failure if it takes them longer than some of their classmates to learn - comparing and ranking should be avoided, and artificially prescriptive age 'targets' don't help.

But none of that should distract from the valuable place that mutiplication tables do have in intellectual development - in helping with a capacity for sequencing, calculating, comparing etc, as part of the foundations for further numeracy development, as what could become an embedded part of someone's mental map for life.